Scientists Create a Distortion-Free Lens That’s Essentially 2D

Think pancake lenses are flat? In the future, camera manufacturers might be able to replace those bulky glass elements inside lenses with lens elements that are thinner than a piece of paper. The lenses would not only be third-dimension-free, they would also be distortion-free.

Scientists — more specifically, physicists — at Harvard have succeeded in creating an ultra-thin, flat lens that only measures 60 nanometers in thickness.

In case you’re not familiar with the nanometer: there are 10 million nanometers in 1 centimeter. There are 100,000 nanometers in a sheet a paper (roughly the same thickness of a human hair). Fingernails grow at roughly one nanometer per second.

So basically, the thickness of this crazy new lens is the length your nails grow in one minute. That’s pretty darn thin.

Creating the lens involves covering a thin wafer of silicon with nanometer-thin “gold antennas” — V-shaped structures that capture light, store it very briefly, and then release it in a new direction. By tuning the output directions of these antennas, scientists made the uber-thin sheet redirect light just like a thick glass lens would.

The advantage of the new lens, besides the obvious one of being essentially two dimensional, is that they can focus incoming light without any of the distortions of conventional lenses:

The flat lens eliminates optical aberrations such as the “fish-eye” effect that results from conventional wide-angle lenses. Astigmatism and coma aberrations also do not occur with the flat lens, so the resulting image or signal is completely accurate and does not require any complex corrective techniques.

Lead scientist Francesco Aieta says that the technology may one day “replace all the bulk components in the majority of optical systems with just flat surfaces.”

Thanks for sending in the tip, Robert!

Image credit: Artist rendition courtesy of Francesco Aieta

  • Paulo Nunes

    Create a tiny full-frame equivalent sensor, put all together in an iPhone and goodbye cameras…

  • Zak Henry

    The difficulty is that there would still need to be a separation distance of lens element to film plane.

  • Ivan

    I presume this “lens” has infinite depth of field and consequently no need to focus. Desirable quality for some applications, but not all. Also, how about variable field of view? (I assume “focal length” does not apply here.) Are “zoom lenses” of this type even possible? It reminds me of nanotechnology Fresnel lens, with similar limitations but vastly improved image quality and reduced size. Bottom line, we are unlikely to see this technology exactly replacing lenses we use today.

  • wickerprints

    Just as is the case with conventional glass optics, a lens made with this novel technology could be made to focus by using multiple elements. There is no indication that it would have infinite depth of field or variable focal length. The “refractive” power of such a lens (which presumably does not work via true refraction, but by some other physical property of light interaction with matter is determined by its construction.

    In other words, think of this technology as a new way to design an individual glass lens element. This new element would be free of spherical aberration because it can be precisely manufactured to bend off-axis rays to converge at a single point. It may also be free of chromatic aberrations, if it has uniform properties across the visible spectrum. It would also be lightweight.

    Should this technology find applications in visible-light photography, it would most likely come in the form of hybrid compound lenses, in which some elements would be made using conventional glass optics, and others might use this silicon-gold nanotechnology. Aberrations and weight would be reduced; focusing might be faster, light transmission may be superior. It could represent the next major step in optical engineering, like aspherical lenses and lens coatings revolutionized camera optics when they were made commercially viable.

  • Michael Crees

    From what I understand about lenses, all this would really do is lighten up some types of lenses. You will not create an iPhone that will get rid of cameras until an improvement in SENSOR TECHNOLOGY. If you were to do that why would you not multiply that same size sensor and put it in a full frame size to work with FULL FRAME LENSES. With such a small sensor size you will still have a huge DEPTH OF FIELD. The problem is due to the laws of physics, the 35mm camera format will remain the optimal camera for all types of work due to it’s portability, maximum light gathering abilities (low f/stops), and ability to produce smaller depth of fields to isolate subject from background. I am not saying that cameras have to due this for all types of photography, but more options are better than fewer.

  • Cochese

    Troll? Or you have no idea how cameras work… Any small sensor with the same aspect ratio is an “equivalent” sensor. The main problem is and will likely always be, unless some kind of extremely amazing advance occurs, is the pixel pitch of a sensor.
    Essentially, the larger the pixel pitch, the better it collects light making higher ISO possible with less grain. The smaller the pitch, the the more grain will be introduced with higher ISO. This lens won’t have any impact on cell phone cameras. Least of all, the iPhone camera. Unless Apple is willing to make a thicker/ larger phone.

  • 11

    “resulting image or signal is completely accurate”

    Does not sound scientific at all.

    Hope it turns out good.. even though I’m worried about obsolescence, my back hurts with heavy glass.

  • kendon

    i think you have no idea how sarcasm works…

  • Dammage

    I think the interesting thing about this lens technology is that you could make relatively inexpensive large diameter lenses. Think F1.4 @600mm and not having to have a crane to lift the lens. You’d still need all the elements in a regular lens, but you’d have a lens that was a fraction of the weight of a glass based lens.. Although, I worry about shock, and other stresses on a thin film lens element..

  • Isaac Botkin

    Since you could make these lenses have a higher refraction index than glass, you could probably also shorten the separation distance a lot. I’m with Dammage, though; these ultrathin membranes will be fragile. I wonder if they can be sealed in sheets of glass for protection.

  • Ed Atrero

    Did the author mean “thin wafer of silicon” instead of “thin water of silicon?”

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks for pointing out that typo :)